National Security

Bin Laden's driver wins another trial delay

A military commission judge Friday delayed the scheduled trial of Osama bin Laden's driver until after the U.S. Supreme Court has decided another key detainee case.

Navy Capt. Keith Allred said delaying the start of Salim Hamdan's trial until July 21 "avoids the potential embarrassment, waste of resources and prejudice

to the accused that would" result were the Bush administration to lose the Supreme Court case.

"Moreover, the accused has been in confinement for six years and another month wait will not prejudice any party to the case,'' Allred wrote.

The decision also provided a window for Hamdan to undergo a mental health evaluation. Prosecutors had argued against such an evaluation, but Allred ordered it in response to defense lawyers' claims that that Hamdan has descended into a deep depression because of the conditions of his six-year detention. That depression makes it impossible for him to assist in his defense, his lawyers say.

A California psychiatrist, who treats U.S. veterans, evaluated the driver for about 100 hours and found he suffers post traumatic stress and is at risk of suicide because of his conditions of confinement.

Allred ordered that an independent panel of mental health experts examine Hamdan. If they find he is not competent, Allred said they should decide whether "more recreation and transfer to a less isolative facility'' might improve his mental health.

In contrast to years of neat grooming and attentiveness, Hamdan turned up disheveled at proceedings in April and said he would boycott his trial. He and Allred then chatted in court for about 40 minutes, and Allred found him "witty, thoughtful, apologetic.''

Still the judge wrote that he was "uncertain about the actual state of the accused's mental health.''

Prison camp commanders have unwaveringly maintained that suspected terrorists confined at the camps are treated humanely and that Hamdan is sane and hasn't suffered unduly in captivity.

Hamdan is held alone in a steel and concrete cell. His meals are delivered through a slot in the door. He can see other captives only through the open slot if they happen to be passing by on their way to recreation cells or showers.

Hamdan has been victorious in challenging the conditions of his captivity before. At one point, a federal court judge suspended his earlier war crimes trial and ordered him moved to the prison camp's general population, resulting in a Supreme Court showdown that overturned the Bush administration's original plans for war-crimes tribunal. Congress established the current system of military tribunals in response to that ruling.

But Hamdan's lawyers say his emotional health has deteriorated with each supposed victory, and that what look like victories from the outside feel like losses to him.

For example, his lawyers said, guards take away many items when there is a suggestion he might be suicidal and his tan prison camp uniform is replaced by a rough "suicide smock'' made of thick, tear-proof polyester.

Meanwhile, military lawyers for five Guantanamo captives accused of conspiring in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks filed a motion to have the charges dismissed, claiming Pentagon meddling in the decision to prosecute them.

The motion on behalf of Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four other captives who'd been held by the CIA argues that the Air Force general who oversees the military commissions process, Thomas Hartmann, had pressured prosecutors to bring the charges, a grave ethical violation under military law.

Last week, Allred barred Hartmann from participating in Hamdan's trial because of similar claims against him.

The decision in the 9/11 cases will be made by a different military judge, Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann, who is chief of the military commissions.

(Rosenberg reports for The Miami Herald.)

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